Act like a girl. Be a lady. Wear a dress. Love a man. Be as “pretty as a princess,” they say. And you believed it, too.
Like many young girls, I once used to dress up as Disney princesses and played “tea party” with my pink Cinderella carriage tea set. After all, to be a princess was to be everything a girl should want to be: the jewel in every man’s eye, the effortless heroine, the classy lady who is poised and loving, no matter the abuse she faces.
But as the veil of innocence was lifted from my eyes, being a princess became anything but a dream. Over the years, Disney has been criticized for perpetuating harmful ideas, like racism, sexism and abuse, to their young and impressionable audience, leaving us older members of Generation Z to ponder what harm Disney has subconsciously done to us.
In the world of Disney, there's no shortage of stale princes with god complexes and women that are coerced into male submission. From having Princess Aurora being saved by the mere kiss of a mediocre prince to Princess Belle marrying her abuser, Disney films undoubtedly promote archaic and damaging ideas about women in society to its young viewer base.
But perhaps one of the most blatantly sexist films Disney has ever produced is "The Little Mermaid."
The 1989 animated film tells the tale of Ariel, a rebellious 16-year-old mermaid who wants to venture into the human world, and when doing so, falls in love with the (mediocre) Prince Eric.
But, the disapproval of her father, King Triton, and her inability to walk on land makes it seemingly impossible to be together. Desperate to reunite with the Prince, Ariel consults the evil sea witch, Ursula, who offers her human legs in exchange for her voice and gives her three days to win over the heart of the prince or spend eternity under Ursula’s control.
The film is astronomically problematic in how it regards women, and the issues within the plot are innumerable. Nonetheless, here is a basic breakdown of everything that is so wrong about this 1-hour-and-30-minute-long cinematic disgrace.
Ariel is only 16-years-old
From the way her character is designed with a curvaceous figure and mature face to how she is practically naked in some scenes, the graphic sexualization of Ariel is beyond uncomfortable, to say the least. Ariel, who proclaims herself that she is 16, is a literal child.
But Ariel’s objectification doesn’t just stop there. The film reinforces countless times that Ariel’s intrinsic value as a woman comes not from her wit or gusto but her looks and body.
From Ursula telling Ariel not to underestimate the power of her ”body language” to Eric’s old, right-hand man, Grimsby, calling Ariel “quite the vision,” Ariel is constantly subjected to the male gaze — all at the ripe age of 16.
This is not to say that Ariel is not entitled to wear what she wants or that she in any way deserves to be sexualized for what she wears, but rather, it's the fact that producers perpetuate the fetishization of minors in film that is impossible to overlook.
Ursula is the embodiment of internalized misogyny
The only thing more tragic than misogynistic men are misogynistic women, and Ursula’s character embodies the result of systemic sexism.
In fact, the premise of Ursula’s character itself is inherently sexist. Throughout the film, it's revealed that Ursula’s fixation on Ariel is due to her jealousy of Ariel’s beauty and “princess” title. But instead of coming to any sort of resolution, Ursula is a woman pitted against another girl, perpetuating the notion that women must compete with each other to get what they want, to win the man they want.
In addition, Ursula uses her position of authority to exploit Ariel’s vulnerabilities, much like how the stereotypic male aggressor might do. Ursula tells Ariel that she not only doesn’t need her voice to win over Eric but also that having it would actually be a turn-off for men.
“You’ll never even miss it … You'll have your looks! Your pretty face,” said Ursula. “The men up there [on land] don't like a lot of blabber / They think a girl who gossips is a bore.”
This is not just about Ariel losing her voice for a man or being only valued for her looks – this is about women promoting the systemic silencing of women, beating down young girls by pinning their insecurities against them and affirming that they are powerless against men. Ugh.
King Triton is a paragon for toxic masculinity
Like every other male authority figure in Disney movies, King Triton is the stereotypic buff, macho man, who, instead of working through his feelings of frustration productively, lashes out and asserts himself through violence.
When Ariel shows defiance against the King by collecting “human items,” instead of reasoning with Ariel, he becomes belligerent, burning down Ariel’s possessions and threatening her with punishment.
But of course, like all the other brutish men (i.e. the Beast) in the misogynistic world of Disney, he is forgiven at the end of the film and compensates for his hostility by letting Ariel marry her “beloved” Prince.
Ariel's and Eric’s love story is literally just over-glorified lust
I said what I said.
Ariel’s first comment about Prince Eric is not that he’s intellectual or charming but that he’s “so beautiful” and, within minutes, “falls in love” because she finds him handsome. Eric proceeds to do the same, and within three days, the couple gets married.
The implications this has for the children watching are beyond detrimental. This notion that looks are the only indicator of our value, especially a woman’s value, is beyond regressive. Humans are so much more complex! We have thoughts, feelings and personalities. Disney’s routine message that looks is our only valuable asset is not only disgusting but dehumanizing.
I will say, the vanity of both Eric and Ariel is probably the only gender equality present in the film, and that’s saying something.
Ariel’s story is a tragedy, not a fairytale
Let’s not get it twisted: The story of Ariel is NOT a love story but a tragedy. "The Little Mermaid" is not a story about a young mermaid who falls in love with a man who brings out the better in her, but rather, an ambitious woman that is brainwashed into selling her identity for the validation of a man who only values her for her appearances.
At the start of the film, Ariel proclaims that she wants to be “where the people are” and that she is a “bright young (woman) sick of swimmin'” and is ready to stand on her own. Ariel was a role model, unafraid to go after what she wants and unbothered by others’ expectations of her.
But by the end of the film, we see this powerful woman fade, and instead, witness a child cast aside her youth to submit to Prince Eric, her “savior.”
Ariel is not the winner, the princess or the lucky girl, but rather the victim of both Ursula’s manipulation and society’s expectations of women, and this regression is a loss for both our young Ariel and for the young girls who are watching.